Manitoba’s mental health minister not in charge of Mental Health Act — at least, not yet

Manitoba’s new minister devoted to mental health does not have authority over the government’s Mental Health Act.

Most aspects of the legislation, which establishes how patients in psychiatric facilities are admitted and treated, will be overseen by the minister of health and seniors, according to an order in council dated last week.

That leaves out Audrey Gordon, who the government says is responsible for mental health. She was appointed minister for the newly created department of Mental Health, Wellness and Recovery in last week’s cabinet shuffle.

The government defended itself in an email, stating “government ministry reorganizations like this take time” and the minister in charge of the Mental Health Act is being reviewed.

Paul Thomas, a professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, said the shuffling of responsibilities deserves to be scrutinized.

“Some people will say that this is just housekeeping, you’ll clean this up eventually,” Thomas said. “But there is a principle that’s involved here.”

Mental health portfolio divided

Our political system depend on ministers being the point person for their portfolios, he said.

“If they’re not really in charge, they’re not in a position to answer. And the whole system depends on answerability.”

Thomas said the pandemic exacerbated some people’s mental health challenges by forcing people to isolate. He said the public is likely assured by the Progressive Conservatives creating a ministry to deal with the problem, and he hopes it will be met with action.

For now, Gordon, the first-term Southdale MLA, is responsible for laws that restrict smoking, recognize caregivers, support youth dealing with substance abuse and govern the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba, the order in council said.

A government spokesperson described the responsibility shake-up as an “initial ‘sort’ of the statutes based on the cabinet shuffle, and will continue to refine the listing as it prepares for Budget 2021.”

The province offered some idea of the new department’s purpose in a news release last week.

It said the department is tasked with developing a whole-of-government approach to providing mental health policy and program supports, as well as devising a provincial mental health, addictions and recovery plan.

Some decisions can be made without changing legislation.

Bernadette Smith, NDP critic for mental health and addictions, said the government is preventing its own mental health minister from doing her job. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

NDP mental health and addictions critic Bernadette Smith questions if the government is committed to solving the mental health crisis when Gordon is being handcuffed, she said.

“I think without full control over the mental health services and providers in our province, it’s hard for this minister to make any real impact,” Smith said.

“I don’t understand why the premier isn’t letting this minister do her job.”

Gordon told CBC Manitoba’s Information Radio in an interview last week she’s personally invested in connecting people with the mental health supports they need.

“I want to be sure that an individual is accessing the right array of services and to ensure — this is very important to me — that we ensure that treatment is culturally relevant and appropriate for the individual,” said Gordon.

Last week, she became the first Black person appointed to cabinet. She was born in Jamaica and moved to Manitoba as a child.

An expanded job description for Gordon is expected when the province releases mandate letters for each minister. No timeline has been announced. 

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